Gear Review: Trekking Poles [updated December 2009]
One look at a symptom list for multiple sclerosis and you’d think taking a hike up to an active volcano in Costa Rica or a trek in the Canadian Rockies (shown at right) would be way down on the MSers to-do list. Balance problems, gait issues, numb feet, double vision, muscle weakness, spasticity, blah, blah. Which is exactly why a set of trekking poles--offering more flexibility and support than a single pole--makes such sense for MSers.
While walking staffs and canes are suitable for flat ground, trekking poles are especially adept at handling rough trails and hilly terrain--as well as the flats. By using both poles you are able to better distribute your weight, lightening the workload on your legs and reducing stress on your knees, feet, hip and back. In addition, less pressure and strain on your lower body means less fatigue, a critical issue many of us MSers face. Of course the largest benefit of trekking poles: they improve your stability and help you keep your balance.
Trusty for Balance
Trekking poles have saved my behind (literally) on countless occasions. In Costa Rica, in the gorgeous Canadian Rockies, and especially on hikes in my backyard: the mountains of New Mexico. Currently my hike limit is about two hours. Any more than that and my right leg pretty much decides to take a vacation. But by using trekking poles to catch the numerous stumbles and my upper body strength to keep me upright, I can keep chugging despite a leg working at only 50% (if that).
I’ve also found that trekking poles are great on flat and hard surfaces as well. Just put on rubber tips (all trekking pole manufacturers offer them as accessories), and presto, you’ve got double the support of a single cane/staff. The downside in this scenario is that you lose a free hand, so it’s not as practical to use while, say, grocery shopping or getting up to get a glass of water from the couch (although folks report letting the pole hang by its strap to free up a hand).
And one last way to use your poles: during aerobic and leg exercises … even in your living room. Yup. I put on the rubber tips and followed a DVD exercise program that had always required wall access for balance. But with the added stability of the poles, I could do lunges and many other exercises (even kickboxing) without tumbling over. Be forewarned, however, that wildly swinging poles could whack anything within pole distance (flower vase, delicate porcelain statuette, grandfather’s urn, or, oops, spouse). So be careful if you try this--the gym might be safer.
What to Look For
I’ve had the opportunity to put four popular trekking poles to the test from the leading makes: Leki (Super Makalu Air Thermo, Ultralight, and Ultralight Luau), Black Diamond (Trail), and REI (Summit). What I’ve discovered is that trekking poles are not created equal. Far from it. I’ll list each critical area of the trekking pole that you should consider before making your purchase, in order of importance for the MSer.
Locking Mechanism All trekking poles work in essentially the same way. They usually have three sections (some have just two) so when fully compacted down they can be easily stored. To use the poles, you expand them to the proper length (see tip at right) and secure them into place. Now how they secure (or lock) is important and number one on this list, because if it doesn’t work properly (or you don’t have the strength or coordination to make it work properly), you could go down in a heap. I pound the ground hard, especially toward the end of the hike when a LOT of my body weight is being supported by the poles. That pole length has to hold. Many poles are secured by firmly twisting the sections of the pole in opposite directions (like the REI), using friction--the tighter you twist, the more reliable the hold. Black Diamond uses a “flick lock” system; a locking mechanism that you can visually see and forcefully lock. Leki uses an innovative “super lock” system that requires 40% less twisting; just tighten until you feel some resistance. Considerations: The Leki system is the easiest to use of any pole ActiveMSers has tested, requiring essentially zero strength to lock the poles into position (and can support 308 lbs of force per pole according to an independent report). The Black Diamond system is even more reliable, but requires a bit of finger/wrist strength to operate the flick-lock system; I would recommend testing them in the store if you have weakness in the hands. The REI poles were frustrating. No matter how hard I twisted them, over the course of a hike they were inches shorter than when I started.
Black Diamond's flick lock is super reliable.
In general, the heavier the poles, the more work you have to do to tote them, whether you are using them or not. All of the poles we tested were relatively light and differed by a few ounces. That said, those ounces can add up over a long hike. Lighter poles typically tend to be more expensive.
Considerations: The Leki Ultralight and Ultralight Luau (women specific) weigh 15.8 ounces per pair, some of the lightest trekking poles on the market (the absolute lightest we can find range are in the 11-13 ounce range). The Black Diamond Trail come in slightly heavier at 17.5 ounces, while the REI pair tip the scales at 20.6 ounces. Heaviest, due in part to the anti-shock system, was the Leki Super Makalu at 21.7 ounces.
Travel Tips Remember that when traveling, it wouldn't hurt to have a doctor’s note explaining you have MS or we’d advise you to pack them in your checked luggage. Hiking/trekking poles are in a gray according to the TSA (ski poles are not allowed, however walking canes are). Don’t forget your rubber walking tips--you do not want to use the regular carbide tips on hard surfaces (like sidewalks). And if you are having a time fitting your poles into your luggage, you can take them completely apart (three sections per pole), which shaves off a couple inches. Another packing option: get a small, but long bag just for your poles and make it a habit of checking them. That way no digging into your luggage to find them and they are ready to roll at baggage claim.
If you are like me, you like to travel. And if you travel, you should travel with your poles (and don’t forget the rubber walking tips!). Your trekking poles will come in handy in the mountains and on sidewalks--plus you can ditch one if you are going to be needing a free hand. But since the FAA frowns on poles in your carry-on luggage, you’ll need to stash them in your checked bags (unless you have a doc’s note). While the poles don’t look very long, when you try to fit them into your bag you might discover otherwise. The shorter the poles, the easier it will be to find a pack that fits them. That said, you need to make sure the poles extend long enough to accommodate your height. ActiveMSers does not recommend trekking poles with only two sections (not tested in this review), as they are too long to pack into luggage.
Considerations: The Black Diamond Trail Compact (ideally suited for those 5’8” and shorter) collapses to a scant 23 inches. The two Leki Ultralights get down to about 24.4” (for 6’2” and shorter) while the REI poles come in at 25”. The heavy duty Leki Super Makalu (for people of any height, even 6’6”) was predictably the longest set of poles we tested, at almost 28”.
Rubber tips are essential for pavement.
Fitting Your Poles
Adjust your poles so that when standing, your elbow bends at a 90-degree angle, with both upper and lower sections being of about the same length. For long downhills, lengthen the poles and, likewise, shorten for lengthy uphill sections.
How tall you are determines correct pole length.
Proper pole height.
It would be easy to overlook the grip and wrist strap, but that would be a mistake. Foam grips are the most comfortable type of grips in this reviewer’s opinion, topping cork and easily besting rubber. Foam tends to be grippiest even with sweaty hands and offers more comfort. Cork is ranked second, while rubber is a distant third. When it comes to the wrist strap, it is just as essential to the equation as the grip. Since they need to fit snuggly, nylon straps without padding tend to chafe on long hikes. Look for a soft lining, which will offer maximum comfort.
Considerations: The Leki foam grips (which didn’t slip even under heavy perspiration) were judged extremely comfortable and the wrist strap was the easiest to adjust and fit. And since the Leki grips are at a slight forward cant, they were the most ergonomically friendly and felt most natural to use when hiking. The Black Diamond poles also feature comfortable foam grips that rival the Leki and nicely padded wrist straps (best in test), although it was hard to fit the straps snug for small hands. There is no forward lean to these grips. The REI poles--with rubber grips, a rough nylon strap, and no forward cant--did not fare as well, as they got slippery with perspiration and the wrists got chaffed during long hikes.
Note the forward cant of the Leki grips.
Use the Wrist Strap! To properly use the wrist strap, insert your hand through the bottom and "shake hands" with the grip--do not twist the hand. Also, do not put the hand in from the top, as this reduces the ability to weight the strap, which is especially important for MSers. Adjust the wrist strap so it fits snuggly and acts as a support (see photo). The wrist strap is NOT supposed to hang loose on the wrist; this will cause unnecessary fatigue of your hands and will not give you maximum support. This is the number one mistake when people use trekking poles, so don’t be like them. You are smarter than that.
Wrong. Too loose and entered strap from top.
The proper way to grip and fit your pole.
Trekking pole enthusiasts (yes, they exist) love to debate built-in shock systems. Some folks swear by them, others prefer a rigid pole. Pros: If you are walloping the earth with each step, the shock system can help prevent jarring and upper body fatigue, reducing stress on joints, muscles, and ligaments. This is especially true on pavement. Cons: Shock systems add weight, length, and expense to the poles, and tend to offer less feedback, so earth and brain might not be on the same wavelength.
Considerations: The only trekking pole with a shock system we tested was the Leki Super Makalu, one of the highest regarded poles on the market. The Soft Antishock System (SAS) worked great, especially when I was nearing my limits physically. Going downhill with only one operable leg meant I had to plant the pole with exceptionally high levels of force, which the shock system absorbed, significantly aiding my descent. On pavement, the shock was even more noticeable and helpful. Each pole plant had minimal vibration, with the tips providing feedback like they were embedding securely in soft dirt. Although the shock might feel odd at first, especially if you are used to a rigid pole, it quickly feels natural and predictable. If need be, the shock system can also be turned off, so it can be used just like a rigid pole.
Leki's soft antishock system (SAS).
Recommendations Leki Ultralight (and Leki Ultralight Luau), $109.95 (www.leki.com) Leki Ultralight trekking poles arguably offer the best combination of benefits of all of the poles tested by ActiveMSers. They are the lightest, have great ergonomic foam grips with comfortable straps, are priced aggressively, and are compact for travel. With the easy-to-use Leki Super Lock system, it’s hard to find fault with the Leki Ultralights. And with the flower graphics on the pastelly-blue Luau women’s version, it’s a fashion statement as well! (Note: these poles are available with Leki’s SAS anti-shock system). Highly Recommended
The Leki Luau version boasts flowers.
Leki Super Makalu, $139.95 (www.leki.com) With the SAS anit-shock system and heavy duty construction, Leki’s Super Makalu poles deliver aces for serious hiking. We warmed to the anti-shock system quickly--absolutely loved it on pavement--and enjoyed all of the Leki features, from the ironclad Super Lock system to the ergonomic foam grips. This pole should be at the top of your list especially if you need the need the extra strength and extra length the poles provide. Highly Recommended
The Super Makalu is indeed super in our book.
Black Diamond Trail (Compact), $79.95 (www.bdel.com) Priced under $80 and collapsible to only 23”, the Black Diamond Trail (Compact version) poles are ideal for those under 5’ 8” feet tall and a boon to frequent travelers. Even though I'm 6 feet tall, this has been my pole of choice when flying because they fit into my carry-on bag. Perhaps best of all, they are friendly on the budget. The flick-lock system is as reliable as the sunrise and as I've said, they’ll fit into just about any piece of luggage. This is a solid pole at a great price. Highly Recommended
At 23" long, the Trail Compact packs best.
REI Summit, $59.95 (www.rei.com) Summits, trekking poles made for REI, are the most affordable of the poles tested by ActiveMSers … and it showed. The rubber grips and nylon straps sorely lack in the comfort factor, while the locking mechanism is unreliable. Spend the extra dollars for a Black Diamond or Leki version and you won’t be disappointed in the long run (or hike, as the case may be). Not Recommended
We wish the rubber grips were more comfortable.
Single Pole Options For maximum benefit, ActiveMSers recommends two poles over a single pole. But sometimes, as stated above, that isn’t practical. Your single pole options include staffs and canes. Black Diamond offers staffs while REI and Leki make both (Leki actually offers four versions). Active MSer Daryl of Illinois likes the staffs from Stoney Point (www.stoneypoint.com), which come with a wood knob or a y point (for steadying a hunting rifle). Lori, an active MSer from Wisconsin, likes the convenience of her folding cane (made by Medline, www.medline.com), where a press of a button can collapse the cane to only 12 inches for easy storage. Considerations: For balance while standing or walking on flat surfaces, the cane trumps the staff due to its style of grip, allowing you to put more support onto the cane. For hiking on hilly terrain, the staff trumps the cane, as it can be placed far in front of you, great for hilly descents. That said, you don’t usually need a free hand while hiking, so why not just use trekking poles in this scenario? So for single pole use, ActiveMSers recommends a cane. If used properly, it provides max support. And if you really want your single pole to do double duty, the Leki Wanderfreund extends a full 53 inches, so it can be used as a cane or a staff, the best of both worlds.
Fitting Your Cane Stand up straight with shoes on and your arms at your side. The top of the cane should come up to the crease on the underside of your wrist. When using the cane, your elbow should be bent slightly, about 15-20 degrees.
Leki Wanderfreund AS, $64.95 (www.leki.com) ActiveMSers tested the cane/staff of Leki: the Wanderfreund. It weighs 10.5 ounces and features an optional built-in shock system, an extra we like (but note that it may take some getting used to; it can be locked rigid if need be). Additionally, the Wanderfreund can be used either as a cane or as a walking staff, locking into place easily with Leki’s Super Lock system (29.5” collapsed, 53” fully extended). A final recommendation: the Queen of England was spotted using one! Downsides? If you collapse the cane for storage, when you open it back up, you’ll have to refit it again (there are no measurements to guide you as with their trekking pole line). And unlike folding canes that pack down, some as small as 11”, the Wanderfreund is not pack friendly (Leki does offer another version that packs down to 18” but it cannot extend far enough to be used as a staff). Highly Recommended